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ALDEBURGH 1969 – THE MALTINGS FIRE !

The Manchester Pullman was a main line luxury train with first class coaches and a steward service. It was withdrawn from service in 1985.

Only hours before the 1969 Aldeburgh festival was due to begin, the old brewery ‘Maltings’ at Snape caught fire and the building was almost completely destroyed, but the scheduled concerts were re-located and went ahead as planned. The morning broadcast concert was my first appearance with the “Barry Tuckwell Quartet”.

My old friend Ben Thomas was a viola player from Morriston in Wales. Ben died in London in 1978.

Manchester Pullman

September 1969

Dear Ben

This train is full of muttering businessmen going north. It’s an odd feeling to be travelling with the general public and all this grumbling reluctance!! I was captured by fog with the RPO at Dublin airport yesterday for five hours. The brass just had a party in the bar!!

You’ll be wondering what happened to me at Aldeburgh!  I arrived at the ‘Plough & Sail’ about a half hour after you’d left and spent some time talking to some English Chamber Orchestra Players, mainly about the fire of course, which by then had been all over the news. It had, they said, almost completely destroyed the Maltings, Ben Britten’s piano and a great deal of music.

The Tuckwell horn quartet was forced to give its morning broadcast recital from the old church at Snape, which despite it being mid summer, was as cold as the grave.

My trembling, which I managed to bring under control in time for the broadcast, was a combination of anxiety, excitement and hypothermia, the journey from London to Snape in Barry’s car having done nothing to help my condition. This was my first experience of his driving, and after a few terrifying encounters with tractors and farm animals, I felt sure it would be my last!

When we arrived finally at the church with fifteen minutes to spare before our ‘live’ broadcast at eleven o’clock, the beleaguered BBC producer who had been working since dawn to set up the equipment for the broadcast, (the fire having destroyed everything at the Maltings), was desperate for a few minutes to check the sound of the horns, so we did what we could and Barry played a few bars of the Beethoven Sonata with the piano.

The end of the concert was an immense relief to all of us, and we were driven to Ben Britten’s house for a reception, where Peter Pears greeted us at the door, along with a very likeable lady, whom I later discovered to have been Imogen Holst, was serving sherry and canapés to everyone. She seemed to be fascinated, which was a surprise to me, by my valleys accent, and I think the sight of me swallowing those absurd canapés three at a time, alarmed her somewhat. So she took me to the kitchen and gave me a proper sandwich with a good slice of strong, salty cheese and a bottle of Guinness to wash it down.

Barry’s promise of “breakfast on the way” had of course never materialized, so even before the concert started, I had been delirious with hunger.

Fortified by my sandwich and beer, I managed to mingle a bit and spoke to Britten for a while.  He seemed fatalistic about the fire, hardly mentioning it at all. He was far more interested in the broadcast, saying how much he’d enjoyed the Tippet, and the sound of the horns in the church. Barry had insisted on a lot of rehearsal, and his own playing of course, is inspirational to everyone, so it was all a great success finally.  Although as we left, I spotted the BBC producer sitting alone in the corner next to a table covered with empty plates and chicken bones, looking as if he’d seen the gates of hell!

When I got to the Plough & Sail, the landlord gave me your note saying you would be at Television Centre on the 25th.  I’ll be there too!  I’m told it’s going to be large orchestra for an hour-long show with Jack Jones, who’s a really great singer so I’m looking forward to that. This is all to be conducted by Harry Betts who’s very able and sociable, having been a trombone player in the Stan Kenton band. So we can all go to the Irish pub at Shepherd’s bush green, for boiled bacon and cabbage and Guinness.

The train is on the move now.   Breakfast is served and the rain has started. I have a few pals in the Hallé to steer me around Manchester after the concert

Good luck

Drac

P.S. No one ever asked me to play with the English Chamber Orchestra.   You must tell me all about it when we meet. The strings always sound superb to me on the broadcasts I’ve heard, and I imagine it must be marvellous to play in those Britten premiers.

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